After Matthew McConaughey took the stage to accept his Best Actor award at the Oscars on Sunday, he began his acceptance speech by thanking God, praising the deity for giving him “opportunities that I know are not of my hand or of any other human hand.” Though McConaughey won for his gripping portrayal of a (straight) AIDS patient in “Dallas Buyer’s Club”—which the influential Christian Web site Movieguide panned for its “very strong and very lewd politically correct, pro-homosexual worldview”—religious conservatives cheered his acceptance speech as a brave strike against Hollywood’s pervasive secular bias, claiming that the Oscar crowd was “rattled” and “quieted” by McConaughey’s praise for the lord.
It is an article of faith among the religious right in America that we are in the midst of a war on religion (in which “religion” usually means Christianity), even though considerable evidence suggests the opposite. This defensive misperception is what led, earlier this year, to a proposed law in Arizona that would have legalized discrimination against gay couples on the ground of “religious freedom,” when in fact there was no evidence to indicate that the religious beliefs of any business owners had been legally infringed upon in the state.
In the minds of those who believe themselves to be targets of this war, the pernicious influence of Hollywood often looms large. Sunday’s Oscars—hosted by an openly gay celebrity, with two winners from a film about AIDS patients in the nineteen-eighties—might seem to confirm the culture industry’s reputation for liberalism and libertinism.
But Matthew McConaughey’s words of gratitude are far from the only sign that God is, in fact, alive and well in Hollywood. This month, major movie studios are doing more evangelizing than Pat Robertson, with the release of two Biblical blockbusters. Darren Aronofsky’s “Noah,” which arrives in theatres at the end of March, dramatizes the famously incredible story of a man and his ark, while the unambiguously titled “Son of God,” released last week, provides the umpteenth dramatization of the Biblical story of Jesus. For those that like their religion more saccharine, April will bring “Heaven is for Real,” the film adaptation of the best-seller about a young boy who, after nearly dying on the operating table, convinces his family that he actually visited heaven during surgery. The evidence? He describes his experience in terms that bear a remarkable resemblance to the visions of heaven he had likely been exposed to at home.
When a non-religious person—part of a growing minority in the United States and the rest of the developed world—points out that these stories are facile at best and demeaning at worst, they risk being condemned as “strident,” or at least disrespectful of religious sensibilities (as Adam Gopnik mentioned in his piece on atheism in a recent issue of the magazine, and as I have experienced first hand). But since piety is profitable, studio executives have carefully tended to their Christian audiences, especially after the success of Mel Gibson’s “Passion of the Christ,” in 2004.
This impulse is an understandable one, but it does run contrary to the conventional wisdom about the film industry’s “anti-Christian” animus. My own perspective on this matter was shaped by my involvement in a feature-length documentary, “The Unbelievers,” which was released in New York last December. The film follows myself and the world’s most famous atheist, Richard Dawkins, as we toured the world carrying out discussions, and sometimes debates, about science, reason, myth, and superstition. (Full disclosure: I am also one of the movie’s executive producers.)
Now, it would be silly to suggest that a documentary about two scientists debating religion and rationality might pose strong competition to a hundred-and-thirty-million-dollar blockbuster starring Russell Crowe as Noah on the ark. But that recognition notwithstanding, we were assured in advance by people in the film industry that a movie about atheism—even one that featured various celebrities—would not be suitable for a general theatrical release, in spite of more than four hundred thousand people downloading the film’s trailer, and a poll of test audiences which suggested that more than ninety per cent of religious individuals who saw the film would recommend it to a friend.
This a-priori impression that atheism is not a suitable topic for popular conversation was summed up nicely by Ricky Gervais, who appears in our film, in a scene where he repeats the line with which he is consistently admonished: “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, so why don’t you just keep quiet about your atheism!”
No one can fault Hollywood for recognizing that religion, like violence, is often profitable at the box office. But this logic leads to a prevailing bias that reinforces a pervasive cultural tilt against unbelief and further embeds religious myths in the popular consciousness. It marginalizes those who would ridicule these myths in the same manner as we ridicule other aspects of our culture, from politics to sex.